After weeks of frenzied media speculation Roy Keane was yesterday formally unveiled as Aston Villa’s new assistant manager ahead of the 2013/14 Premier League campaign. Keane, who is already employed as assistant to another former Villa boss, Martin O’Neill, at the Republic of Ireland, recently turned down the opportunity to take the manager’s position at Celtic. The Irishman stated during his debut press conference representing the Birmingham club that while he “cannot promise miracles” in his new role as Paul Lambert’s number two he hopes to contribute to some up-turn in the club’s fortune ahead of the new campaign.
Keane is in the process of re-building his managerial reputation after having endured underwhelming stints in charge of Sunderland and Ipswich. The Cork native started his management career impressively at the Stadium of Light, securing the Tyneside club automatic promotion to the Premier League in his first season after taking charge.
Keane assumed control at Sunderland with the Black Cats rooted to the bottom of the Championship table following four successive losses from their first four fixtures in the 2006/07 season. Following a raft of new signings, however, and the forcible imposition of a greater culture of professionalism at the club, Keane led Sunderland to secure the Championship title on the final day of the season, winning the Championship “Manager of the Year” award en route.
Sunderland’s return to the top-flight proved a more arduous test of Keane’s managerial abilities as his tactical acumen was exposed in a way that does happen in the Championship. The Black Cats struggled badly in the opening months of the season – a 7-1 defeat at Goodison park marked the undoubted nadir of the campaign – but a good run of form after Christmas saved the club from an immediate return to the second tier.
Already Keane’s abilities as a manager were coming under real scrutiny in the media. His signings, for example, were seen as unimaginative – too many players, the argument went, were coming from the discarded bin at Old Trafford or brought across the border from Celtic. Meanwhile, there were many commentators who felt that the club’s performances on the field were not commensurate with the level of investment in the playing staff that was taking place off it. In other words, Keane was not living up to his budget as Sunderland manager.
In December of the following season, with Sunderland eighteenth in the league, Keane would resign his position, citing differences with the 30% shareholder, Ellis Short, as the key reason for his departure off of the back of five losses in his previous six games. He would go on to endure a far less successful spell at Ipswich Town where he reigned from April 2009 to January 2011 with the club never really pressing for promotion. Ipswich and Keane did, however, suffer from a chronic lack of investment during this period; many commentators suggest that his performance at Portman Road was about par.
In spite of the fact that an automatic promotion followed by a successful Premier League survival campaign constitutes a promising start to a managerial career by almost anyone’s standards, Keane, it seemed, was subject to some greater expectation. In many people’s eyes this heavier media burden went a long way to prematurely ending his time at Sunderland and destabilizing a promising young managerial career. The weight of expectation on Keane “the manager” was of course a product of the fact that he was such a great player. Keane captained Manchester United to seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups, and a Champions League triumph during his twelve years at the club.
In this light Keane can be accurately be seen to have constituted the essential back-bone of the greatest squad that Alex Ferguson assembled during his twenty-six year reign at Old Trafford, and he was arguably the most important signing that the Scot ever made as United boss. And although Keane, by his own admission, was far from the most technically gifted footballer in a group that boasted talents like Paul Scholes, David Beckham, and Ryan Giggs among its ranks, he was by far the most influential.
Despite being massively talented, the huge success that Keane enjoyed throughout his playing career seemed to be a product more of a steely drive and determination to succeed than of any innate footballing gift. This influence undoubtedly rubbed off on those around him and throughout his career it was observed that Keane set the standards that the rest of the dressing room had to live up to.
Perhaps therein lay the problem for Keane “the manager.” The Irishman’s ascetic dedication to achieving perfection in every match was perhaps an appropriate standard to set for a dressing room composed of some of the most gifted footballers in the world at Manchester United. The players populating those Sunderland and Ipswich dressing rooms, however, simply did not possess the footballing ability and mentality that Keane demanded. The well-reported fissuring in the relationship between manager and players that occurred at both of these clubs during Keane’s tenure likely grew from that tension.
The hope for Villa fans is that we now possess a more measured, realistic, and calmer Keane; a man who with three years detachment from involvement in the club game has gained a more balanced perspective on what is to be expected from the average squad player at a middling Premier League club. By that same token, Villa fans and Paul Lambert alike will be hoping that the club’s new assistant manager has not lost any of that drive and desire to succeed that underpinned his career as a player. Because God knows that the current Villa playing staff could do with a Roy Keane in their midfield right now.